Some Personal Information & Comments
This part of the site is about me. You might be happy to skip it. To tell you the truth, once I’ve finished writing it up, I’ll probably skip it myself. But for those who may be interested…
In February, 2012 I was asked to do the “PROUST QUESTIONNAIRE” for Open Book, Toronto and Open Book, Ontario. This is a curiously searching little interview form which one can treat as a lark, or with some seriousness. On the grounds that it was meant to be treated a little seriously by both Proust and Open Book, I went ahead and jumped in. So here it is:
The Proust Questionnaire
The Proust Questionnaire was a much-loved game with Marcel Proust and many of his contemporaries. Proust did not invent the game, but of the many people to fill out the questionnaire, Proust is the most famous. The idea behind the questionnaire is that the answers are supposed to reveal the respondent’s “true” nature. Have fun, and please feel free to answer as many questions as you like.
Authors please note our general content guidelines:
- Open Book’s limit for interviews is 1,000 words. Please check your word count when finished. Open Book reserves the right to edit interviews over 1,000 words.
- Open Book reserves the right to edit content that may be offensive to our readers, including curse words and sexually explicit material.
- Open Book does not use emoticons in text and will delete them prior to publishing.
What is your dream of happiness?
A world without war, a planet unplundered, and all children well-nurtured.
On the personal level: good health, ongoing creativity, good exchanges with family and friends.
What is your idea of misery?
a luxury Caribbean cruise; an evening of literary readings
Where would you like to live?
On a warm island, close to a great city. But London, Paris, New York, Santa Fe or the Taos Valley, New Mexico, would do.
What qualities do you admire most in a man?
patience, wisdom, standing up for what he believes in
What qualities do you admire most in a woman?
intelligence, liveliness, beauty, oracular insights, standing up for what she believes in
What is your chief characteristic?
spiky geniality, persistence
What is your principal fault?
Too quick to judge people
What is your greatest extravagance?
food, books, techno-stuff
What faults in others are you most tolerant of?
What do you value most about your friends?
loyalty, conviviality, awareness of people and art
What characteristic do you dislike most in others?
arrogance, superficial worldliness, being judgemental,
smug superiority, a gross sensibility, addiction to cellphones
What characteristic do you dislike most in yourself?
too quick to react
What is your favourite virtue?
tolerance, genuine charity
What is your favourite occupation?
listening to great music, walking in the spring woods, watching movies by Val Lewton or Michael Powell
What would you like to be?
A world-famous conductor with a specialty in Sibelius. Strauss and Mozart.
What is your favourite colour?
blue, but dark green and khaki are nice too.
What is your favourite flower?
the Marilyn tulip (it really exists) , orchids, Michaelmas daisies
What is your favourite bird?
cardinals, any owl, crows, hummingbirds.
What historical figure do you admire the most?
Laotse, Julius Caesar, Justinian and Theodora, Erik the Red, Frederick II (1194-1250), St Francis of Assisi, Robert Owen, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson. Edmund Burke, Garibaldi, TE Lawrence, Richard Burton (explorer), Shackleton (explorer), Charles de Gaulle, FDR, Pierre Eliot Trudeau
What character in history do you most dislike?
Oliver Cromwell, Stalin, Mao Zedong
Who are your favourite prose authors?
Lord Byron (yes, his prose!), Poe, Balzac, Knut Hamsun, Ivan Bunin, Mikhail Bulgakov, Lernet-Holenia, Hemingway, Mark Twain, Willa Cather, D,H, Lawrence, Sei Shonagon, Ford Madox Ford, Graham Greene, Mishima, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Campbell
Who are your favourite poets?
Chaucer, Hafiz, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Frost, Graves, W.C. Williams, Yeats, Auden
Who are your favourite heroes in fiction?
Odysseus, Gandalf, Steppenwolf, Prospero, Puck, Arial, Alice ( from Lewis Carroll), Falstaff, Mr, Micawber, Little Red Riding Hood, Anne of Green Gables, Pierre, Andrei, Levin and Natasha (fromTolstoy), Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, Margarita (from Bulgakov)
Who are your heroes in real life?
C.G. Jung, George Patton, Geoffrey Jellicoe (landscape architect), Johnny Sain and Warren Spahn (baseball pitchers), Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Dennis Kucinich, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Ann Baring, Bill Moyers, Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Ricken Patel, Linda McQuaig, Naomi Klein, Stephen Lewis, Paul Dewar
Who is your favourite painter?
Giotto, Gauguin, van Gogh, any Impressionist, Kandinsky, Matisse, Klee, Bonnard, Balthus, Burchfield.
Who is your favourite musician?
Rachmaninoff, Stokowski, Beecham, Bjørling, Hilde Gueden, Hans Hotter, Cesare Siepi, Bidu Sayao, Lisa della Casa, Lennie Bernstein, Richard Dyer-Bennett, Paul Desmond, Renée Fleming.
What is your favourite food?
steak tartare, blood pudding, scrapple, corned beef hash, fried cod roe, roast chicken, fresh crab with mayonaise, risotto, spaghetti bolognese, ravioli, vermicelli alla puttanesca, Peking duck, General Tao chicken, designer pizza, home-made ice cream, creme brulée, croissants
What is your favourite drink?
coffee,Pilsener beer, any full-bodied smooth red wine
What are your favourite names?
Tom, Madeleine, Kate
What is it you most dislike?
physical pain, sexual or other betrayal, personal rejection
What natural talent would you most like to possess?
How do you want to die?
in bed with my wife, unmessily
What is your current state of mind?
Happy, but wary of Mr. Death
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
my efforts to creatively teach and mentor young people for 40 years
What is your motto?
“Follow your bliss” (Joseph Campbell)
Okay, so there it is!
For career and publication information you can consult the summaries I’ve provided here which cover my creative writing, cultural studies work and teaching career. For a visual display of my published books, with a few comments from reviewers, click on the”Books button” at the left or click here.
A Few Facts About My Life
I was born in Manhattan, and grew up there and in Westchester County. As a kid I played war games and cowboys and Indians on the old Bailey Estate in Mount Vernon, then sandlot baseball, football, and roller skate hockey. I loved reading, and discovered many enduring enthusiasms in the Mount Vernon Public Library (Knut Hamsun, Ivan Bunin, Carl Jung). I loved listening to the radio: the Wyllis Cooper programs were my favourites, but I also loved Suspense, Grand Central Station, and other great old story-telling shows. I loved wilderness and camping, and, in a different vein, going to the NY Museum of Natural History (my total wonderland), and later to the MOMA (you walked up the stairs to find The Sleeping Gypsy—and beyond that there was Magritte, the “colour organ,” Kandinsky and Guernica!).
I regularly visited the New York City Opera and Ballet, and went to the art cinemas that in those days dotted the city, and to the first Barnes & Noble remainder stores. Mozart and Rachmaninoff were very big for me then (as now), and I loved Mahler, Stravinsky,Bartok, Richard Strauss. I also loved buying books in the Modern Library series. I was a Detroit Tigers fan (Dizzy Trout, Hal Newhouser, Hank Greenberg, etc.), but I saw a lot of Yankee games with the great DiMaggio, and one of my favourites, Tommy Henrich. I also saw Willy Mays at the Polo Grounds.
My high school valedictorian was Alan Alda, and John Gregory Dunne was a classmate. I worked at Schirmer Music Publishing, the United Press (Financial Section) and as a valet in various New York Ivy League Clubs.
I passed the U.S. foreign service examinations, written and oral, and studied at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, D.C. (it was, and probably is, actually in Virginia). At age 22 I became American Vice Consul in Aden. I traveled quite a bit in what is now Yemen; investigated and practically solved a sensational murder reported in Newsweek, and wrote well-received economic and political reports. I met my first wife there, too.
Later, I lived and worked in Hamburg, Germany, where I did a lot of work (for others!) in court, on the Reeperbahn, and wherever U.S. tourists found trouble. I met Henry Miller, William Holden and other notables–in brief encounters–and saw the complete Ring Cycle with the incomparable Hans Hotter and Astrid Varnay. My first son, now a professor and writer, was born in Hamburg. I lived in England and studied there (with Peter Ure, the Yeatsian, and James Maxwell, the Shakespearean), and later taught university in Michigan (where my daughter was born—she now lives in Los Angeles and works as a television producer).
I came to Canada in 1965, and, despite the winters, have lived very happily here ever since. (Although I love Santa Fe and the Taos Valley in New Mexico, and several times thought seriously of moving there; it’s also tempting to move closer to the sea). I married my second wife, Marilyn Carson, in 1970, and my second son was born in Ottawa in 1979.
I rose to the rank of full professor (English) at Carleton University in Ottawa, and am now Professor Emeritus and a very busy free-lance scholar and writer, with a special interest in Canadian culture, mythology, and popular culture. Family is very important to me, as are poetry and music, good food and good conversation with friends. I get jumpy if I can’t stay in touch with the natural world.
Where I Live
Our spacious backyard lies along a quiet city crescent. As I sit contemplating the shifting sunlight, enjoying the slight breeze that animates everything around me, four giant maples shield me from the street, and two nearly as large wait in the wings. A splendid Marilyn garden is rising around me. (Our front garden, once a pedestrian-stopper, also by Marilyn, was rather savaged by street repairs repairing previous bad repairs). But from here, where I once saw the gold of perennial sunflowers, pink hibiscus, white impatience, mauve nicotiana, a flowering herb garden full of mint, basil, parsley, oregano, and sorrel, a bee and butterfly garden, ferns, apple trees, and lilac bushes looking encouraging for next year– and nearby, a fountain, with goldfish–I see mostly the promise of a new garden! This tiny pond my younger son and I constructed of large stones; they make it look like an ancient well. There are weather-worn gray wooden chairs, a picnic table where we often entertain.
Today I don’t read or listen to Sibelius on my walkman; I simply sit and watch. The play of light and shadow is wonderful. I see that the gnarled old maple to the left, battered by the ice storm, is looking both wounded and tough; the two on the other side of the arbor that leads to the street look very young and strong. Mornings the crows come, usually in pairs, like Hugin and Munin, evoking thought and memory. They are noisy and impressive. There is a compost heap in the shadows under the trees, a new blue wheelbarrow and a sturdy, rotting green-painted one, made by the father of one of my friends. My friend left it in my care when he moved to England. I hope he comes back for it some day. I keep watching the leaves move in the sunshine, one on a branch above the pond has caught the light and looks like an old coin, “shining like shook foil.”
I like to think of the Mediterranean as I sit here; or rather thoughts of the Roman world come into my mind constantly. If there is any truth in reincarnation, perhaps I lived then. Perhaps I was a slave and a gardener, or, with luck, a minor and insignificant member of the gentry, reclusive, happiest on his farm in the hills, writing poetry. I was in Pari, Tuscany a few years ago and recently at the Roman villa in Malta. Nowhere is more beautiful than Tuscany, and I love Malta, yet I am very happy in my small square of backyard.
Up at Hawk Lake, at our cottage in the wilds of Québec, I never think of Rome, or feel like a Roman. Up there I sink into nature in a different way. I become part of the landscape and feel the Pan spirit (a northern Pan, darker and wilder than the Greek one). Animals are everywhere: deer walk out on the cottage road, bears claw at the garbage shed; there is a resident chipmunk, red squirrels, the great blue heron, loons, hummingbirds at our window, and fish in the lake. Paddling out on the lake is one of the great things. (We have a quiet lake, small motors and no seadoos, but that too seems threatened by development). Is nothing sacred; is nothing safe from development?
Yes, some things are sacred; and, yes, everything is threatened by development. Charming and disheveled old Westboro is becoming a nightmare alley of condos, fake mansions, trendy stores and traffic. Time to retreat from the money-grubbing, opportunistic, Philistine developers?
A Short List of Some of my Favourite Artistic, Intellectual and Pop Culture Encounters
What follows is intended to provide a summary of what I remember of the artistic, intellectual and travel “encounters” that have most mattered to me. I should warn you that the lists below don’t reflect much of my hyper-serious, critical, dutiful reading, just things that opened doors for me in the creative world—and things that gave me real joy. Quite a few of these still hook me; others have only a foundational or nostalgia value. They are, of course, not based on what I think should be important and are certainly not necessarily fashionable stopping points; they are just my experiences. The order is, very roughly, chronological.
- Fairy Tales, Babar, and bird identification books
- Adventures of Robin Hood, King Arthur stories, and others illustrated by Howard Pyle, the elder Wyeth, and other artists.
- The Tale of Two Horses by A.F. Tschiffely
- The young adult historical novels of Joseph Altsheler
- The historical novels of Kenneth Roberts
- Stories of the Greatest Nations (historical narratives, illustrated with reproductions of classic art)
- The radio fantasy and terror dramas of Wyllis Cooper, and other classic radio shows, such as Suspense, The Shadow,The Green Hornet, Boston Blackie, The Mystery Chef, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Information Please, etc.
- Comic strips, such as Superman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, The Flash, The Phantom and various pulp magazines
- Astounding Science Fiction
- Various histories of the American Revolutionary War
- The novels of Jules Verne
- Invitation to Learning, the radio show
- The Antarctic exploration narratives of Richard E. Byrd
- The poetry of Browning
- The stories and poetry of Poe
- The writings on astronomy of Sir James Jeans and Sir Arthur Eddington
- Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment
- The Odyssey
- The life and work of Jefferson
- The films of Jean Cocteau and Melville’s Cocteau-like film Les Enfants Terribles
- Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony
- The poetry of Robinson Jeffers
- The Tao Te Ching
- The short stories and memoirs of Ivan Bunin
- The writings of Knut Hamsun, especially Growth of the Soil, Pan and Victoria
- The Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads
- Everything I’ve heard by Mozart, but especially the D Minor Piano Concerto, The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni
- Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony and Second Piano Concerto first, then almost everything of his. One of my favourites now (I have done English-syllable equivalent words for it) is the song “Zdes’ Khorosho”
- The music of Prokofiev, especially the piano concertos and ballets, the Fifth Symphony and Alexander Nevsky
- The Symphonies of Gustav Mahler
- Omnibus, the television show
- The novels of André Gide, Mark Twain
- The poetry of Robert Graves
- A.L. Kroeber’s famous old textbook on anthropology
- Henri Bergson’s The Two Sources of Morality and Religion
- The paintings of Renoir
- The art of Kandinsky and his book on the spiritual in art
- Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches
- The novels (but not the stories) of Kafka.
- The films of Federico Fellini
- The writings of Thomas Mann, especially Buddenbrooks and The Holy Sinner
- André Malraux’s The Voices of Silence
- Verdi’s Falstaff
- The films of Alfred Hitchcock
- The music of Ravel and Debussy
- The sculpture of Rodin
- The writings of Carl Jung
- The art of Paul Klee
- The art of Sir Thomas Beecham
- The fiction of Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier
- Balanchine’s ballets, especially Apollon Musagète
- The music of Stravinsky
- The plays of Eugene O’Neil, in the José Quintero New York revivals
- The early and middle novels of Graham Greene
- Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams
- The writings of Tolstoy
- The personality and career of T.E. Lawrence, and his Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
- The music of Sibelius
- The music of Richard Strauss, but especially Electra, Ariadne, Der Rosenkavalier, the songs, and Till.
- The voice of Heinrich Schlusnus
- The voice of Elizabeth Schumann
- The voice of Erna Berger
- The voice of Axel Schiøtz
- The voice of Richard Tauber
- The voice of Bidu Sayao
- The fiction of Richard Hughes
- The Ring Cycle of Wagner, with Hans Hotter as Wotan
- A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David
- The art of Gauguin
- Nursery Rhymes
- The fantasy and science fiction of C.S. Lewis
- The novels of John Cowper Powys
- The graphic work of Eric Gill
- The novels of Evelyn Waugh
- The landscape writings of Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe
- Pre-Raphaelite painting
- The writings of Willa Cather
- Romantic poetry, especially Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shelley
- The poetry of Tennyson
- The writings of D.H. Lawrence, especially the essays and travel books
- The writings and life of Hermann Hesse
- The writings of Alan Watts
- The music of the Sixties counterculture bards, especially Tim Hardin, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot
- The writings of Olaf Stapledon
- Margaret Atwood’s Survival and her early poems
- The philosophy of Michael Polanyi
- The writings of René Dubos
- The writings of H.G. Wells
- The writings of Teilhard de Chardin
- The novels of Philip K. Dick and the movie Blade Runner
- The paintings of Emil Nolde
- The works of several classic illustrators, including Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle and Maxfield Parrish
- The painters of the American southwest, especially Ernest Blumenschein, Joseph Henry Sharp and Bert Phillips
- The architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright
- The writings of Ernest Hemingway, especially In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises and The Garden of Eden
- Travel Books, such as Sven Hedin’s Through Asia and some of the writings of Richard Burton.
- George Gissing’s By the Ionian Sea, which holds a mysterious fascination for me.
- The voice of Jussi Bjoerling
- The films of Ernst Lubitsch
- The films of John Ford
- The writings of Mikhail Bulgakov, especially the doctor stories and The Master and Margarita
- The short stories and especially the literary essays of Jorge Luis Borges
- The Epic of Gilgamesh
- The Golden Ass of Apuleius
- The novels of Raymond Chandler
- The novels, stories and essays of Jack London, especially The Star Rover.
- Big Band Jazz
- The life and military campaigns of George S. Patton
- The art of Paul Desmond
- The films of Stanley Kubrick
- The art of Balthus
- The life and work of Joseph Campbell
- The fiction of Par Lagerkvist
- The films of Val Lewton, some seen much earlier
- The films of Fritz Lang, some seen much earlier
- The films of Michael Powell
- Kaos, the Taviani Brothers’ film based on Pirandello
- The art of Leopold Stokowski
- The music of Beethoven (better late than never!)
- Ditto Handel, and even more so
- The Norse Sagas
- The films of Jean-Pierre Melville
- The films of Yasujiro Ozu
- The films of Preston Sturges
- The Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan films
- Babylon Five- the SF TV series
- Zoot Sims, Miles Davis, JJ Johnson
- The science fiction of Brian Aldiss
- Lewis Carroll
- The life and work of the explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson
- The Bruckner Symphonies conducted by Guenter Wand
- The “Ranown” movies of Budd Boetticher, especially Ride Lonesome
- The Met Capricchio starring Renee Fleming (DVD)
- The “Marta Argerich and Friends” recordings
- The Complete Recordings of Django Reinhardt
Places That Interest Me
- New York (Manhattan, the Bronx and Westchester) pre-1955, and Manhattan, post-1990
- The sea, anywhere, any time
- The Arabian desert
- Quiet corners of the English countryside, in Suffolk, Norfolk, Somerset, Northumberland etc.–if there are any left.
- Durham Cathedral, the Roman Wall, Seahouses and Holy Island
- Paris and the French Provinces, especially Brittany, the Dordogne and Provence, pre-1965
- Majorca, pre 1960
- The New Mexican desert, Santa Fe and Taos, Lobo Mountain and the mountains near Questa, N.M.
- Eastern Ontario “backwoods” farms
- The Island of Malta
- The Jordaan in Amsterdam
- The Canadian north woods, especially near my cottage on Hawk Lake, Québec
- Los Angeles